Cass Davis

Witness    2017

30 bales of hay, reproduction of image from 1908 Springfield Race Riot, baling twine.

*Image courtesy of U of I Springfield Archives and Sangamon Valley Collection.

The 1908 Springfield Race Riots left 64 homes and business in ashes, and at least seven people dead. The riots caused a Black exodus from the city – particularly from neighborhoods here on the north side of town – but were also a catalyst for the formation of the NAACP.

Witness accesses that local history through the research and re-presentation of archival material. The image itself has been preserved as a record and a form of testimony; as a reproducible document, it bookmarks an important and overlooked aspect of local history that reverberates through the present.

The installation is positioned in a void that speaks to the displacement of people and history, and the ghostly absence of site, of home, of memory, and of justice that are all attached to that loss. Further, the viewer is placed between different modes of looking – to look at what is visible versus vanished, to look at others looking, to be looked at while looking – but with the caveat that not all acts of looking are equal, especially during the Jim Crow era in 1908 Springfield and elsewhere. For surely there is an undeniable contrast between the role of the white spectator or witness in racist violence (calling to mind the white crowds in lynching photographs, for example), versus the accusations of “reckless eyeballing” against Black men who would be beaten, killed, or lynched for so much as even glancing at a white woman.

The experience of looking also provokes questions about who are the people in the foreground – part of the racist mob? Curious bystanders and spectators? Witnesses who directly saw what happened and could give oral or written account? Each of these possibilities prompts a further reckoning with the structures of white supremacy and racial violence that underpin the race riots that occurred here: are we actively perpetuating this systemic violence, passively condoning it, or creating and enacting testimony that could help to dismantle it?

-Text in collaboration with Greg Ruffing, Curator
Terrain Biennial, Springfield, IL